New poets mine rich seam of language
AN older poet who is a friend recently said to me that Australian poetry is enjoying a golden age. This claim is true, but I doubt whether the Australian reading public is particularly aware of this fact. If I were to prepare an alphabetical list of Australian poets who are outstanding and whose first books have been published since 1980, my list would be ridiculously long. It would have to include Judith Beveridge, Kevin Brophy, Elizabeth Campbell, Caroline Caddy, Jennifer Compton, Tricia Dearborn, Stephen Edgar, Peter Goldsworthy, Philip Hodgins, Carol Jenkins, Andrew Lansdown, Anthony Lawrence, Bronwyn Lea, Emma Lew, Stephen McInerney, Homer Reith, Gig Ryan, Philip Salom, Andrew Sant, Shen, Craig Sherborne and Alex Skovron. Some of these poets are very different from each other and might look askance at their bedfellows. But all have written memorable and exciting poems.
Add to this the fact that some older poets, for example, Robert Adamson, Jennifer Maiden and Alan Wearne, have recently extended their range and written some of their best work.
There have been other high points in Australian poetry, for example when Paterson, Lawson and Brennan were publishing in The Bulletin in the 1890s.
But what is astonishing about Australian poetry now is the sheer number of poets who have written outstanding poems.
Some readers may be surprised by how enjoyable much of this poetry is. The poems of Clive James and the comic verse of Barry Humphries are of course very accessible and written in regular forms. By comparison the prosody of two other lesser known Australian poets, Nigel Roberts and Pi O, may appear strange and forbidding on the page. But their poems can be wonderfully inventive and as funny as James and Humphries.
Contributing factors to this efflorescence of Australian poetry may be our larger population, the release of energy from the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’ 70s and, more recently, the internet. Some of our female poets, for example, Dearborn, Jenkins and Ryan, are wonderfully frank. Poets have a control over their product that filmmakers and novelists usually do not have, and the shorter confessional poem is an art form that could have been custom-designed for internet sites such as Facebook.
The Youngstreet Poets is a group that has existed for more than 30 years and is one of those co-operatives where members regularly meet and workshop their poems. There are several such groups across Australia and they have contributed to the renaissance of our poetry. When the Sky Caught Fire is the eighth anthology of poems by this group and features work by 18 poets, edited by Beveridge.
All the poems are enjoyable and eminently readable. In The Ambiguity of Olives , Kath Broughton celebrates an elaborate feast of some Italian friends on a summer lake that ends as they ‘‘ drink to their next meeting / in 1481 // a year of plague’’. Brook Emery has three poems in which he tries to make sense of his experience ‘‘ at a slight angle to the world’’ and ‘‘ my horizon stretched’’.
Barbara Fisher has a poem spoken through the voice of Deborah Milton, who wonderfully excoriates her blind and complacent father-poet. Fisher’s poems about birds walking and countess Tolstoy are equally good. Helen HaywardBrown has a very touching poem about the death of an asthmatic school mate. Hilarie Lindsay wonders whether she should release a bonsai tree from its bondage, like the bound feet of traditional Chinese women, and decides to trim its roots. Lesley Walter compares her baby grandson to ‘‘ a steamed rice-paper roll . . . So wholly edible’’.
Bel Schenk is a former lead singer and guitarist of a pop group, is on Facebook and her book of poems Ambulances and Dreamers has this endorsement on its cover from the Nobelist J. M. Coetzee: ‘‘ The inflections with which Bel Schenk greets that odd couple, urban love and urban loneliness, are all her own. An engaging collection.’’
The poems are typically about cooking, watching TV, hanging around in the laundromat, love in a karaoke bar. There are frequent references to Chinese food and fortune cookies and films. Lines such as ‘‘ the freeze of a movie embrace / the dull ache of a last kiss / the numbness of the still’’ could be read as sentimental, and perhaps they are, but there is a knowingness, an ambiguity at the heart of Schenk’s poetry that resists easy labels.
In Festival Time in the City she comments on her own poem in eight footnotes, many of which are deliberately banal and anticlimactic.
One of the most engaging poems, to borrow Coetzee’s adjective, is In the Chinese Grocery Store . The poet and her friend see an old Chinese lady stealing some dirty bok choy and imagine she will cook for them. One of her most ambitious poems is The Landing Is Harder in Real Time . This describes what a woman suicide sees at night through apartment windows as she falls from the 61st floor.
Yi Sha was born in 1966 in the southern Chinese city of Chengdu, three days after the start of the Cultural Revolution. He is a professor of literature, but a renegade from the Chinese literary establishment and a selfdescribed bastard, figuratively and not in the literal sense. His book, Starve the Poets! , includes translations of 118 poems selected from 340 poems that he sent to his translators.
He is described by his publisher as the most controversial Chinese poet of the past 20 years, a member of the extreme avant-garde whose work has changed the face of Chinese poetry.
All this sounds intimidating, but Yi is one of the most consistently enjoyable poets I have encountered in recent years. I said to my wife: ‘‘ Take a look at this.’’ She read his book ravenously for about 10 minutes, then looked up rather sadly: ‘‘ I suppose I have to give it back, so you can review it.’’
Yi is brilliant, inventive, humane, painfully honest, spare, ironical. His genius is prolific and in poem after poem his dart flies to the bull’seye. In Factory for Artificial Limbs he describes meeting up outside the factory gates with a childhood friend who has gone to work there. He recognises the friend but ‘‘ his smiling face . . . was magnified a couple of times’’. He notices his friend’s walk is a bit odd, ‘‘ so I pulled up one leg of his trousers / It’s real he laughed’’. They remember only when they say goodbye to shake hands and ‘‘ Everything was intact, same as it ever was / We both roared with laughter.’’
In Old Tolstoy Ticked Me Off he watches a